WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is crafting a new plan to manage the nation's 155 national forests, including six in Arizona, for the next 15 to 20 years.
At stake is the future of 193 million acres of forests and grasslands that are the nation's single largest source of drinking water and home to more than 15,000 species of plants and wildlife.
The U.S. Forest Service says the new plan, due by year's end, is urgently needed to replace the so-called forest-planning rule written in 1982 during the Reagan administration. That rule, which emphasized using the forests for logging, does not reflect the latest science on climate change and how best to protect wildlife and water, the Forest Service says.
The rule was never intended to last nearly three decades - about twice as long as expected. President Bill Clinton attempted to replace it in 2000, but his proposal was scrapped when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Efforts by the Bush administration to draw up its own plan were derailed when the proposals were challenged by environmentalists and thrown out by federal courts.
As President Barack Obama's administration takes up the crucial but contentious issue, it is under intense scrutiny from competing interest groups that hope to shape the plan to their liking. Neither environmentalists nor business interests are happy with the first draft of the new forest rule. Conservation groups say it lacks adequate protection for wildlife and water and gives individual forest managers too much discretion in how to carry out the plan. Business groups say some of its provisions to protect species could end up kicking ranchers, timber companies and others off the land.
Industry groups also point to this year's devastating wildfires in Arizona as evidence that more logging and grazing are needed to prevent forests from becoming overgrown and fueling fires. Environmentalists say the fires underscore the need to make the forests more resilient to climate change, which increases temperatures and decreases streamflows.
A planning rule is required by the National Forest Management Act of 1976. It is intended to provide an overarching framework for the managers of individual forests and grasslands in the National Forest System to use in revising their own land-management plans, which they are supposed to do every 15 years. The rule is intended to provide guidance to forest managers on how best to protect forest health, water and wildlife while providing opportunities for recreation and economic ventures.
The first draft of the Forest Service plan focuses for the first time on how to strengthen the health of forests in the face of climate change and includes enhanced protections for water resources and watersheds, updated provisions for sustainable recreation, and a requirement that the land be managed for such multiple uses as mining, logging, energy production, outdoor recreation and wilderness protection.
The final plan, which does not require congressional approval, is expected to be published in November.
"We believe this is one of the most important conservation policies the Obama administration will undertake," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration and executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "This is land that belongs to all of us as Americans.
The country's national forests attract more than 170 million people a year who hike, camp, hunt, fish, go boating or whitewater rafting, ride horses, ski, and drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. Visitors spend an estimated $13 billion a year in communities surrounding the national forests, supporting more than 224,000 jobs.
In Arizona, visitors are drawn to the lakes in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (two forests managed as one), the Red Rocks of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, the diverse "sky island" mountains in the Coronado National Forest, the bison herd in Kaibab National Forest, the Verde River headwaters in Prescott National Forest, and the saguaro-studded desert of the Tonto National Forest.
Nearly 3 million Americans have forest-related jobs in such fields as forest management, outdoor recreation and the forest products industry, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Environmentalists say the current rule has not proved to be strong enough to protect the watershed that carries drinking water to 124 million Americans.
Clark said about three-quarters of the forest watersheds are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be "impaired," meaning that federal water-quality standards are not being met. According to the Forest Service, the biggest causes of water-quality impairment include excessive sediment loads, habitat destruction near waterways and contamination from mercury and other metals.
The Forest Service unveiled the proposed rule in February, opening it up for a public comment period that lasted through mid-May. During that time, more than 300,000 individuals, groups, tribes and state and local governments weighed in on the plan, reflecting a strong interest in the issue, the Forest Service said.
Forest Service officials will consider those comments as they draw up a final rule and environmental-impact statement.
Environmentalists applaud the increased protections for water resources and watersheds, stronger requirements to provide habitat for diverse animal and plant species, and a plan to address the impact of climate change for the first time. But they say the plan undermines those goals by giving too much power to individual forest managers to decide how - or even if - to protect wildlife and water.
In Arizona, that means managers could choose whether to maintain healthy populations of bighorn sheep, turkey and elk, designated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department as priority species of concern.
Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, said he would like to see the new forest rule do more to preserve watersheds by preventing development in roadless areas and making it easier to designate new wilderness areas, where logging, mining and other resource extractions are banned. A wilderness area has not been created in Arizona since 1984.
"If you go back 110 years or so, Arizona's national forests were largely created out of an interest in protecting our watershed and our water supply," Skroch said.
View from business
At the same time, the timber, cattle and sheep industries complain that the proposed forest rule's protections for wildlife are too broad and unclear because they require the Forest Service to "maintain viable populations of species of conservation concern," which could lead to restrictions on grazing and logging. In 2010, about 2 billion board feet of timber was harvested from national forests, down from about 12 billion in 1980. The proposed new rule does not specify how much logging would be allowed.
"There is no scientific consensus on what level of any given species is 'viable' or how it is to be 'maintained,' " said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents ranchers, and director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The viability standard will be impossible for the agency to meet. There will be a litigation feeding frenzy by the radical environmental groups bent on ending grazing and other multiple uses on federal lands."
Environmental litigation and complicated bureaucratic rules already have significantly reduced the number of cattle that Arizona ranchers are grazing on national-forest land, said Bas Aja, director of government relations for the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.
There are about 100,000 head of cattle grazing in Arizona's six national forests today, Aja said, about 55,000 fewer than in 1993. That represents an estimated annual loss of $126 million to ranchers and to the larger Arizona economy, he said.
Ranchers typically acquire a 10-year lease to graze on public land, but that lease must be reviewed by the Forest Service each year, Aja said.
"You may be in the middle of your 10-year lease, but the Forest Service can tell you that they've identified a new species of concern and you can't graze your cattle anymore for who knows how long while they conduct studies and environmental reviews," Aja said.
The debate between environmentalists and ranchers mirrors a split in Congress, where lawmakers have sent dueling letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling for him to heed their calls for changes in the final forest rule.
A letter organized by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and signed by 59 House members asks Vilsack to start over. "Please do not lose this opportunity to produce a planning rule that is truly simple, understandable, flexible and (defensible) in court," the letter says.
A letter drafted by Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and signed by 66 members of Congress, urges Vilsack to go further in protecting water and wildlife. "The course set by these sweeping new rules will determine the future of our national forests for generations to come," it says. "It is essential that we get this right."